Stormwater Fees are Looming

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Up to now, disputation over stormwater regulation in Knox County has mainly been between developers, on the one hand, and environmentalists along with property owners impacted by flooding on the other.

But if the unanimous recommendations of the Knox County Stormwater Advisory Board are adopted, the flap seems certain to extend to every property owner in the county. Those recommendations, approved by the board last week, start with creation of a stormwater utility to oversee implementation of a multi-faceted stormwater flooding and pollution abatement program.

The cost of all those efforts, atop the $5 million that the county is already spending on stormwater management, is projected to run in excess of $10 million a year and perhaps as high as $25 million or more. To pay for them, the board has recommended imposition of stormwater user fees on every piece of developed property in the county. In addition to residential and commercial properties, that would include churches, hospitals and other not-for-profits that are exempt from property taxes.

Because of the complexities involved in determining how they would be assessed, officials can't begin to say how much these fees would be. But a report by the consulting firm that's been advising the board (AMEC Earth and Environmental) notes that the average single-family stormwater user fee nationwide is $3.05 per month. On a $100,000 house, that would be equivalent to about a five percent property tax increase.

The board recommended that â“the utility fee should be equitably established to address the contribution of properties to the stormwater system including such factors as their impervious area.â”

Measuring the size of every roof, driveway, parking lot and other impervious areas of every developed piece of property in the county seems like a daunting task. It's deemed feasible for commercial property, but not for residential. So only the former would appear susceptible to having fees based on the board's criteria (though residential fees in some locales vary with lot size).

Although most of the state is faced with the same kinds of challenges as Knox County in complying with federal water quality standards, only a handful of Tennessee localities presently impose stormwater user fees as authorized by state law. (The city of Knoxville gave some consideration to them a few years back but has opted to continue funding its $2.1 million annual stormwater control budget from tax revenues.)

While last week's meeting of the diverse, 17-member Stormwater Advisory Board was remarkable for its unanimity, that doesn't mean its recommendations won't be controversial. Indeed, one of its members, developer Victor Jernigan, ventured that â“the amount of heat this is going to generate is unbelievable. It's going to make the purchasing card issue pale by comparison.â”

When the board completes its work on a stormwater management program to be funded primarily by the user fees, its recommendations will go to County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who will then make his own recommendations for County Commission action. Ragsdale's spokesperson, Laura Norwood, says, â“It's not possible to speculate on a timetable until the mayor has received the advisory board's recommendations and had time to digest them.â”

In the meantime, County Commission is due to act next week on revisions to the county's stormwater ordinance that have been proceeding down a separate path. In the judgment of the county's stormwater coordinator Chris Granju, the revisions don't materially alter stormwater management standards for obtaining grading permits, building permits, monitoring construction sites and the like. The most significant change in his view is a stiffening of requirements for buffer areas between new developments and nearby streams or wetlands.

Where the ordinance is primarily prospective in its application to new development, the Stormwater Advisory Board has been primarily concerned with achieving overall adherence to water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. The emphasis has been on initiating a master planning process, putting the resources in place to implement the plan and funding remedial action.

As matters stand, Knox County has 35 streams that are classified as impaired because of one or more pollutants. Excessive sediment heads the list, which also includes pathogens, chemicals, metals and other illicit discharges. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has established what are known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for all of the above. And Knox County must submit plans by next year to show it's monitoring for them and making progress toward redressing them. At stake is the renewal of a federal permit, the loss of which could have severe consequences, including fines of $10,000 a day or more.

However, unlike federal air quality standards that have quantified clarity, the water quality standards to be achieved seem murky. TDEC regulations require â“the development and implementation of a Storm Water Management Program that will reduce the discharge of pollutants to the â‘maximum extent practicable' and not cause or contribute to violations of state water quality standards.â” But these requirements are judgmentalâ"indeed, the sort of judgment that might have to come from a court.

To implement a Storm Water Management Program for Knox County, an AMEC plan that's still pending before the board calls for the creation of 29 new county positions next year and another 10 by 2013. In addition, it preliminarily assumes capital improvements totaling $41 million over that five-year span.

Granju's office already has hundreds of requests for projects ranging from bridge, culvert and pipe replacements to new detention ponds. And many more can be expected to emerge from the master planning process. The amount of any stormwater user fees will be determined in large part by the pace at which the county decides to fund these projectsâ"or can afford not to. â" Joe Sullivan

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